Autism, Technology and Play: a practitioner led study

About me 

My name is Maggi, and I’m a PhD student in the Patrick Wild Centre at the University of Edinburgh. Before starting my PhD, I studied psychological science and research methods, and worked in various social care services, mostly with adults who have a learning or developmental disability. I first encountered autism, in a professional context, at a residential care home I worked at during the summer in 2013, and since then, have been studying autism, and working with autistic people.


Study 1 is almost done!

I am now in the process of analysing data from the ASDSchoolsTech survey and some focus groups done at specialist autism schools. Thanks for all your input and participation & I’ll hopefully update soon with some results!


The Short Story: What I’m planning to do my PhD research on

My project will explore whether technology influences social behaviour in autistic children. With recent and large advances in technology, and slow-moving changes in the perception of technology in practice, many practitioners are now using technology whilst working with autistic children. What I’m going to explore is whether leisurely use of technology (e.g. games) may inspire social interaction with other people in the same space.


The Long Story: Exploring social ‘spin-off’ benefits of technology in children with autism

‘Technology’ is an integral part of our everyday lives – and is developing at an astonishingly fast rate. Take the mobile phone: we began this century using “bricks with buttons” to now predominantly using multi-functional touch screen devices, which have engulfed the roles of telephone, camera, and personal computer.

Source: http://inventionsideas.xyz/uncategorized/cell-phone-timeline/

The progression of the mobile phone: from “brick with buttons” only used in emergencies, to life-saving, multi-functional, multi-tasking efficiency. Source: http://inventionsideas.xyz/uncategorized/cell-phone-timeline/

Technology-related skills are now a part of the primary education curriculum, and digital platforms take up a generous portion of our work and leisure time. As technology is now both appealing and accessible to young children, teachers, parents and researchers ask what is the learning or therapeutic potential of these digital devices?

The idea that technology could benefit children with autism is not new (in fact, the earliest study we know of goes back to the 1970s), but with the current popularity of technology, the question about its relevance or benefits to the autism community has never been more important. Previously, it was thought that people with autism had an increased interest in technology, and used technology more often than people without autism. But nowadays, everyone is user of technology to greater or lesser degrees, and so technology is now a much more inclusive platform.

Although traditionally thought of as a “non-social medium”, there are many modern examples of technology assisting communication, relationships and interaction in both autistic and non-autistic people. For example, tablet computers can provide minimally verbal individuals a ‘voice’, which was previously only possible with an expensive, unsightly, awkward and complex machine. Tablets are cheap, user-friendly, portable, and easily updated, backed-up, and replaced. Social media or online gaming can potentially provide individuals who find face-to-face communication difficult the opportunity to socialise. We know that people with autism can find social interactions difficult or unpleasant, but it is important that everyone who wishes to do so has the opportunity to engage in social interaction.

So we already know that some autistic people might socially benefit from technology designed to increase or support interaction. But what is interesting to me is the ‘spin-off’ social benefit of using technology not necessarily designed for that purpose. Seems implausible? Well, I’ll give you an example.

pokemon-go-image

A young child playing Pokemon Go. Source: http://mominspiredlife.com/10-tips-for-playing-pokemon-go-with-your-kids/

There was a recent surge of news reports around the release of ‘Pokemon Go’, an augmented-reality mobile game which involves navigating, collecting and ‘battling’ with animalistic creatures, called Pokemon. They shared stories [for example, here and here] about autistic children ‘having something to talk about,’ and ‘going outside and playing with friends.’ Pokemon Go did not intentionally target social interactions or the skills to do so, but it seemed to help some potentially vulnerable and isolated children gain confidence and shared interests with peers. Other benefits of Pokemon Go include motivation to exercise (you have to walk certain distances to hatch Pokemon eggs) and spend time outdoors (won’t catch many Pokemon from your sofa!).

Pokemon Go is a fantastic example of such ‘spin-off’ benefits from technology use, and it is these sorts of social-based improvements or outcomes that I am interested in finding out about. What I hope to do with my project is capture and explore the social benefits of technology use for children with autism in a naturalistic setting, and explore current views and factors relating to using technology in a therapeutic or educational setting.

Study 1: Exploring current views relating to technology use in autism practice
My first study aims to understand how technology is used in autism services, and whether practitioners believe technology can be beneficial for socialising, or if they experience or examples of this case in their practice. Practitioners are key to shaping the future of support and intervention, and it is important that they have the opportunity to share their views and experiences of using technology in their workplace.

Study 2: Observing technology’s influence on social behaviours in children with autism
My second study aims to observe technology use in a naturalistic setting, and comparing children’s social behaviours in digital and non-digital activities. To do this, I hope to set up an ‘activity club’ and record the children playing and interacting with an activity (digital or non-digital) and other people (whether that’s other children, practitioners or parents). I aim to collect a lot of information from this study, from characterising the child’s ‘autism profile’ (for example, their strengths and areas of difficulty, including sensory preferences and social communication skills), and their ‘digital proficiency’. I will compare the sessions at an individual level (I.e. look at social behaviours in sessions which the child enjoyed more/least), and at a group level, to see whether technology generally has an influence on social behaviours.


Contacting me

I’ll be posting on the DART website soon about recruitment if you wish for yourself or your child to participate at any stage of the study.

If you want to ask me anything, have any feedback, or simply want to discuss my project, you can contact me on m.h.laurie@sms.ed.ac.uk or tweet me @mlaurie93.